Dr Michael Persinger of Laurentian University quickly became the science darling of skeptics and atheists a decade ago with news of his 'God Helmet', which appeared to show that 'sensed presence' of supernatural entities (and/or 'God') may be simply due to magnetic disturbance of the brain. Since then however, Persinger has not made himself an overly attractive science reference for skeptics as he has been involved with, and claims to have achieved positive results in, experimental parapsychology.
Earlier this year, Persinger gave the following lecture, titled "No More Secrets". In it, he detailed his theories on the connection between magnetic fields and the brain, in particular how this relationship could facilitate telepathy and remote viewing. He notes particular experiments and individuals (Ingo Swann, Sean Harribance) that seem to give evidence supporting his theories, and makes some fairly extraordinary claims which I'm sure will lead to some debate.
I had never seen Persinger lecture before - he's a great presenter, and with his usual suit and pocket watch, and precise mannerisms, makes for a fair caricature of an eccentric scientist. Whether you agree or disagree with his theories and evidence, it's still worth a watch just for some of the oblique insights that he has (e.g. when discussing the minuteness of fields involved, "don't think of 'bigness' as being important, it's the pattern that is important"). A worthy time investment for any science fiction writer...
The lecture is around 36 minutes long, and is followed by almost 20 minutes of questions and answers.
The title of the lecture emerges from the extrapolation of telepathy as a barely understood phenomenon, to a talent that all humans could use to know what was in any other person's brain. What would it be like if there were 'No More Secrets'?
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Consider this: approximately a third of our life is spent asleep, and in an average lifetime we experience about half a million dreams. And yet for most of us that part of our existence is like a closed book - we might remember an occasional vivid dream, but usually our dreams are just vague, fragmented shadows that evaporate in our minds as soon as we open our eyes. So here's a new book from Daily Grail Publishing to help us all reclaim this 'lost' part of our lives, and what's more, get loads of enjoyment out of it: Lucid Dreaming, by Paul and Charla Devereux (available from Amazon US and Amazon UK). This updated and revised edition of their classic 1998 guidebook explains the history and nature of dreams and lucid dreams, and then presents a uniquely comprehensive range of techniques, tools and aids for attaining lucid dreaming yourself:
Forget your 3D cinema and TV, and your virtual cyber-worlds - these are but pale electronic imitations of what you can access through your own mind. This book shows you how to dream lucidly, which means waking up inside dreams while still physiologically asleep. Lucid dreaming is a genuine altered state of consciousness, not merely vivid dreaming, in which you can find yourself in other realities that seem as real as waking consciousness. There is no limit to the creations you can explore, because the biological wonder that is your brain is the most complex thing we know of. You can have fun, meet departed friends and relatives as if they were still alive, rehearse actions you have to undertake in the normal world of daily reality, experience mystical and paranormal mind states, and much more.
Go grab a copy of Lucid Dreaming from Amazon US or Amazon UK and "live the dream"! Besides the personal benefit you'll gain from reading the book, each copy sold helps keep the Daily Grail up and running, so it's a win-win situation. And feel free to spread the word to friends!
(Note: If Amazon says the book is "temporarily out of stock", it's just a quirk in their system. They should be able to refill stock within 24 hours)
The mega-publicity campaign* for Richard Wiseman's newly-released skeptical book Paranormality: Why we see what isn't there has kicked into full-swing, with his article/excerpt "Can Dreams Predict the Future" getting major coverage in the media (along with other material, such as "Things That Go Bump in the Night" at New Humanist). I had a few things to say about the piece, but then saw that Robert McLuhan, author of Randi's Prize, has had his own response to Wiseman - titled "Precognitive Dreaming Should Not Be Dismissed as Coincidence" - posted by The Guardian (see also Robert's original post on his own blog Paranormalia).
Wiseman elaborates on the "coincidence" theory that has been used to explain away precognitive dreams. We dream much more than we think, he points out, thus generating a jumble of different images. These are mostly forgotten, but one may be triggered by something we experience in the following days, leading us to suppose it "magically predicted the future". In reality it is just the laws of probability at work.
...Sometimes the dream is recorded before the event, but this too may be coincidence. It would not be surprising, Wiseman points out, given that "dreams tend to be somewhat surreal" and tragedies are constantly taking place around the world.
However, 20 years spent studying psychic research has convinced me that the parapsychologists are right. Wiseman's appeal to the Law of Large Numbers is arguably as subjective as the phenomena it attempts to explain. Where dreams are reported that match future events on a number of specific details – as is often the case – statistical probability is not particularly useful.
Robert's conclusion is spot-on - he points out that there is not enough evidence either way to say with certainty whether the case for precognitive dreaming has been proven or debunked, and "to omit...positive findings makes this look less like an objective assessment of precognitive dreaming than just another attempt to explain it away... accounts that exclude relevant data and credible scientific research should be treated with caution."
That sounds like a pretty sensible, truly skeptical position to take. But that's not how it plays out in the comments section...in there you'll find all kinds of nonsense about what Robert is supposedly saying, his worthiness to put forward an opinion, and how the commenter knows it's all bunk (including that tired old chestnut, "how come it hasn't won Randi's million dollars?").
So, in summary: Wiseman writes an article stating with certainty that something is disproven based on no evidence, and McLuhan posts a response suggesting caution in jumping to conclusions. And Robert McLuhan is the non-skeptical one? Sadly, an all-too-common state of affairs these days...
* Yes I know I'm facilitating the publicity by posting about it, and trust me - it does bother me.
In today's major piece of not-news, Wired tells us that the anaesthetic drug Ketamine creates out-of-body experiences. Well actually, they say it "creates out-of-body illusions". Then in the next round of Chinese whispers, it becomes "Ketamine reveals the truth about the OBE". The source of these headlines is a (rather more circumspect) paper titled "Ketamine as a primary predictor of out-of-body experiences associated with multiple substance use":
Investigation of “out-of-body experiences” (OBEs) has implications for understanding both normal bodily-self integration and its vulnerabilities. Beyond reported associations between OBEs and specific brain regions, however, there have been few investigations of neurochemical systems relevant to OBEs. Ketamine, a drug used recreationally to achieve dissociative experiences, provides a real-world paradigm for investigating neurochemical effects. We investigate the strength of the association of OBEs and ketamine use relative to other common drugs of abuse. Self-report data (N = 192) from an online survey indicate that both lifetime frequency of ketamine use and OBEs during ketamine intoxication were more strongly related to the frequency of OBEs and related phenomena than other drugs. Moreover, the apparent effects of other drugs could largely be explained by associated ketamine use. The present results, consistent with the role of NMDA receptors in OBEs, should encourage future studies of the role of neurochemical systems in OBEs.
I say "not-news" because anybody familiar with the effects of Ketamine already knows that users often have OBEs. Additionally, there has already been much discussion of the similarity some Ketamine trips have to the near-death experience (NDE). So it's not really news (though the paper itself is of course interesting), and people are piling on a fair dose of hype about it being somehow 'explanatory'.
But here's the bonus for all you readers out there: you can dive into this topic in more depth by downloading Karl Jansen's book Ketamine: Dreams and Realities (2000) in its entirety (and completely legally) from the MAPS resource centre (or if you want a 'real book' version, head to Amazon.com). In there you'll find two whole chapters devoted to the Ketamine-OBE-NDE crossovers - fascinating reading, not to mention the rest of the book.
This year's "Toward a Science of Consciousness" conference - to be held from May 2-8 in Stockholm, Sweden - features a fairly interesting line-up, so if you're able to get along I'm sure you'll find plenty of interest. Two of the featured speakers discussing the question of consciousness are at fairly opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to scientific reputation: Deepak Chopra will be giving a speech on "Vedic Approaches to Consciousness and Reality", while Sir Roger Penrose will deliver the Keynote speech of the conference (I'd pay just to watch Sir Roger's face as Deepak discusses quantum physics).
Also speaking are a number of open-minded scientists who we've kept our eye on over the years, including neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, parapsychologist Dick Bierman, and anaesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff, as well as 'afterlife' researchers Pim van Lommel and Peter Fenwick in the final-day Plenary, "End of life brain activity". Good stuff - check out the details at the TSC Conference website.
Here's a nicely done video describing the inherent weirdness of the "Placebo Effect":
Listening to scientists you tend to get the feeling that they find the placebo effect to be something pathological - perhaps a knee-jerk materialist reaction to something effective arriving simply out of a belief - and thus to be eliminated if at all possible. When it's said that "such-and-such only works due to a placebo effect", should it matter more that it has no 'scientific' basis, or does it matter more that it works? An interesting question...what do you think?
Last Friday The Colbert Report did a piece on Daryl Bem's research into precognition/presentiment (ie. "feeling the future") describing it under the title "Time-Traveling Porn". Though Colbert gets plenty of laughs with his riffing on the theme, it was surprising to see Bem there in the studio to discuss his experiments with Stephen - and even better, he acquitted himself very well, describing his research clearly while playing along with the humour:
|The Colbert Report||Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|Time-Traveling Porn - Daryl Bem|
Colbert seems to enjoy exploring and having fun with some of these fringe topics - remember last year he had Leslie Kean on discussing her book UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record, he's had some fun at the expense of Uri Geller, and has had Daniel Pinchbeck on as a guest in the past as well.
Over the past few months I've mentioned (see here and here) the controversial, soon-to-be-published paper by respected psychologist Daryl Bem which offers evidence for 'precognition' - basically, anomalous perception of future events. This week the New York Times has printed a piece on Bem's research, and (as you might expect) it's chock-full of everything that's wrong with what passes for 'science journalism' in modern times:
One of psychology’s most respected journals has agreed to publish a paper presenting what its author describes as strong evidence for extrasensory perception, the ability to sense future events.
The decision may delight believers in so-called paranormal events, but it is already mortifying scientists. Advance copies of the paper, to be published this year in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, have circulated widely among psychological researchers in recent weeks and have generated a mixture of amusement and scorn.
The paper describes nine unusual lab experiments performed over the past decade by its author, Daryl J. Bem, an emeritus professor at Cornell, testing the ability of college students to accurately sense random events, like whether a computer program will flash a photograph on the left or right side of its screen. The studies include more than 1,000 subjects.
Some scientists say the report deserves to be published, in the name of open inquiry; others insist that its acceptance only accentuates fundamental flaws in the evaluation and peer review of research in the social sciences.
“It’s craziness, pure craziness. I can’t believe a major journal is allowing this work in,” Ray Hyman, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University Oregon and longtime critic of ESP research, said. “I think it’s just an embarrassment for the entire field.”
So apparently Bem's paper is "mortifying scientists". All scientists? Who are these 'mortified scientists' exactly? And it's only generating generated "a mixture of amusement and scorn"? No curiosity in there? No mention of other positive replications, just the negatives? And as for Ray Hyman...I think his quote perfectly encapsulates the embarrassment that CSICOP and its members are to the entire field of science. On the one hand they say that psi remains bunk because of lack of publication in peer reviewed journals. But apparently by their rules psi research should not be allowed to be published in peer-reviewed journals in the first place! *facepalm*
Speaking of the CSICOPians, a more detailed criticism of Bem's paper is available on their website for those interested in some of the possible flaws in his research: "Back from the Future", by James Alcock. Note too that Daryl Bem has responded to Alcock's criticisms, provoking a reply bursting with sulky hyperbole from Alcock. And if that wasn't enough reading for you, Dean Radin has also responded to Alcock although more on the theme of parapsychology's history than Bem's procedures.
Sadly however, with all the back and forth and muddying of waters already, before the paper has even been published, I'm rather skeptical that Bem's paper will end up being any sort of game-changer in terms of scientific acceptance of psi research.
Update: The New York Times article has appended a 'Room for Debate' section to their story, in which they have a number of scientists give their thoughts on Bem's experiments. Not sure about the 'debate' bit though, as they apparently only have skeptical/cynical scientists in their rolodesk: CSICOP Fellows Lawrence Krauss, David Helfand, Douglas Hofstadter and Richard Wiseman all get to say their piece, along with a few other folk whose first response to the study is to make clear that peer review doesn't always work. Quite the 'debate' there NYT!
If you want a feel for the quality of the debate offered, you'll find Anthony Gottlieb hilariously trying to say there's far too much lab proof of psi...what's needed is real world evidence!
It’s very suspicious that hard evidence of paranormal powers only ever seems to show up in laboratories. If people really can predict the future in extrasensory (and extra-rational) ways, how come they only seem to manage it when ESP researchers ask them to do something trivial, like guess a playing card or a picture?
So it seems parapsychologists have got it all wrong - skeptics don't want them to prove things via double-blind, peer review studies. They want anecdote!
Previously on TDG:
A few months ago I noted an interesting paper by respected psychologist Daryl Bem which appeared to provide some support for the idea that humans have some precognitive ability ('seeing the future'). A couple of weeks ago this news 'went big', with major news agencies around the world covering it. Given the attention foisted upon Bem's experiments, and the controversial nature of his conclusions, it's little wonder that scientist and skeptics have focused on this paper (still unpublished, by the way!) to try and find flaws in the methodology and analysis.
One of the first to dive in with a "big announcement" about Bem's experiment was psychologist Richard Wiseman - little wonder, given that Wiseman loves himself some publicity, and Bem's conclusions run counter to his public pronouncements/skepticism about psi. To be fair, Wiseman did point out a flaw in Bem's method: allowing non-blind scorers to fix spelling errors in participant responses, which could have led to subjective bias in the scoring of tests. Bem has since responded to Wiseman's criticism, labeling it a "legitimate concern", but also noting that taking it into consideration makes "little difference to the results".
More heavyweight responses came in the 'negative replications' mentioned by Jonah Lehrer in his Wired article about the precognition experiments (Galak & Nelson , and Hadlaczky ). However, Bem has pointed out that "Galak and Nelson went ahead with their trial without having full information about how his own experiments were conducted. They also had their experimental subjects take the test over the Internet rather than in person." A commenter at Dean Radin's blog ('Sandy') also showed it was possible to cheat on the test to increase the likelihood of getting a null result. In short, the kind of 'replication' that skeptics would reject if the results were positive. Given that Hadlaczky's paper is from 2006, I am unsure whether it is a genuine replication of Bem's most recent experiments. Similarly, a recent paper by Thomas Rabeyron and Caroline Watt had (largely) negative results, but again wasn't an exact replication. And another paper dismisses Bem's results because he should have used 'conservative' statistical tests rather than 'liberal' ones, a criticism which Dean Radin has responded to at his blog, and Ben Goertzel has discussed at length as well. Radin has also noted that he has just reviewed a soon-to-be-published positive replication of one of Bem's experiments.
Feeling like your brain is now scrambled? Can't say I blame you - it just goes to show how difficult it is to reach a consensus view on these controversial topics. So where do we go from here in judging Bem's precognition experiments? I think it's clear that we have to wait for *actual* replications of his methods, because everything so far seems to have not been precisely the same. But I can at least categorically say that you shouldn't base your judgement on anything written by non-scientists at the James Randi Educational Foundation, and you shouldn't even read the brain vomit that Robert Todd Carroll comes up with at the Skeptic's Dictionary.
Oh, and in case you were wondering - the irony isn't lost on me as to pondering the future outcomes of a precognition experiment...